Java, Indonesia

Indonesia (part 2): Java, temples and volcanoes

We abandon the serenity of Tanjung Putting in a small propeller aircraft with only 16 rows of seats, which lands us in the busy, noisy and extensive Surabaya, typical enormous Asian city that never sleeps, with heavier-than-what-is-reasonable traffic, oppressive heat and an endless line of little shops on the pavements.  We are going to skip it because our goal is to take a night bus to Yogyakarta, in Central Java. We dine a nasi goreng in a street stall for 50 centimes, cooked at the moment for us in a wok. In Yogya we will be eating in street stalls too.

Yogya, or Jogja, was the ancient capital of the Mataram Sultanate in the 16thC. 32 square km of city easily accessed thanks to a complete and efficient network of buses. We take a room in the area around Jalan (street, shortened as Jl) Sosrowijayan and Jl Malioboro, a very lively neighbourhood with a labyrinth of gangs (very narrow streets) full of cheap hotels, restaurants (warungs in Indonesian) and a huge street market under the colonnades of Malioboro– prepare yourself to barter, Yogya is the capital of batiks and fabrics.

It is a very well communicated district with a train station from which trains to Jakarta, Surabaya and Probolinggo, among others, depart. And it’s a 30 minute bus ride to the airport. Our osman, a word that designates a cheap lodging, is located in a very quiet narrow twisting lane. It is pretty basic but nice, with many bird cages hanging from the ceiling of the front porch and the corridors – the poor things never stop singing. Birds are very popular in Javanese culture. Just here in Yogya there is a bird market which we choose not to visit because it is basically an animal trafficking hub. At the end of the long Jl Malioboro we find the Kraton, the old Sultan palace, but it is a very disappointing visit, really not worth it. If you have some time to spare while in the city, I’d rather suggest a visit to the packet indoors market in Jl Malioboro.

The Temples of Central Java

The star attractions in Yogtakarta are actually located around the city, at opposite ends of it. We are talking about the two great temples of Borobudur and Prambanan, two architectonical jewels built in very different styles. You can get a combined entrance ticket (around 50€, but more expensive if you want to see the sunrise at Borobudur, a classic). Most people take organized tours to visit both temples in one day. We take it slow as we’ve decided to spend 2 days here. We get to Prambanan easily with a bus that we take in Jl Malioboro, a very straightforward uncomplicated process. At each bus stop you will find helpful and friendly staff to sell you the ticket and explain where you need to get down. Buses start at 5.30am.

Prambanan, the jigsaw puzzle

Prambanan was originally a complex of 240 Hindu temples devoted to the Trimurti, the expression of god as a creator (Brahma), preserver (Vishnu) and transformer (Shiva), and built during the 9thC following a geometrical layout, like a giant mandala. It is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia and one of the largest in South East Asia. Abandoned in the 10thC perhaps as a consequence of a power shift or an eruption of Mount Merapi (one of the most actives volcanoes in the country, 28km away from Yogyakarta), the complex suffered extensive damage due to an earthquake in the 16thC. Although it was rediscovered by the Scottish army officer Colin Mackenzie in 1811, it would not be until 1930 that the Dutch started the reconstruction– not an easy task and the restoration work is still undergoing.

One of the things that catches our eye, a part from the temple itself, is the spread of piles of stones on the spots where originally temples and chapels stood- and which gives us an idea of the real size of the original compound. It is also interesting to see the stonecutters working. This is a huge 3D jigsaw puzzle (like a giant Lego without the assembly instructions) and the rebuilding demands an infinite patience – I take my hat off.

On the summer of 2018, the work on the 8 central temples and the 8 secondary chapels of the inner enclosure was completed. The central temple of the Mandala, 47m high, is devoted to the goddess Durga and the other chapels and little temples devoted to other divinities are spread around. The bass reliefs carved on the temples depict the Indonesian version of the Ramayana. Hindu celebrations are held here since the 90s.

The other monuments on the Archaeological Park of Prambanan (made of 4 complexes) are in worse shape. The temple of Sewu, for example, is in a dire state of ruin – only the centre is standing and all the chapels around are just piles of rubble half restored – some of them are farther along and some are hardly shaped. Unfortunately, an earthquake on 2006 damaged considerably the works in progress.

Both here and in Borobudur, there is a separate entrance for international visitors, where a complimentary drink is offered – water, tea or coffee.

Borobudur, a song to Buddha

If you visit Borobudur during the weekend you’ll come across many local tourists, specially schools. The fun part is many of these students come here to practice English with tourists, apparently. And part of the test is to ask them for a selfie. So you will spend your visit accepting requests as if you were a celebrity.

Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world, built in the 9thC as a giant stupa shaped like a step pyramid taking advantage of a natural hill. It combines 9 platforms, six of them square-shaped and three of them circle-shaped, and it is crowned by a giant dome surrounded by 72 perforated stupas hiding Buddha statues inside. It is like a large mandala representing the 3 kingdoms of Buddhist cosmology and the nature of human mind. The lowest platforms are decorated with more than 2500 carved panels and more than 500 Buddha statues.

After it was abandoned around the 14thC probably due to the decline of the Hindu kingdoms in Java – when their population converted to Islam – it remained buried by the jungle and layers of volcano ash for centuries. Until in the 19thC the British governor Thomas Stamford Raffles, who had taken an interest in the history of Java, sent the Dutch engineer Hemann Cornelius to check out some rumours. With the help of 200 men, Cornelius cut down trees, burned vegetation and removed soil to unbury the monument. After an initial modest restoration at the beginning of the 20thC, in the 1970s the Indonesian Government, with the help from UNESCO, assumed the titanic task of dismantling, cleaning and cataloguing literally a million stones, restoring the reliefs, sorting out the drainage system and stabilizing the foundations of the temple, among other things.

In 1991 it was included in the list of World Heritage Sites. After the 2010 eruption of the Merapi a second restoration was needed to unclog the drains filled with ash and repair some damages. Today it is the main tourist attraction in Indonesia and a religious centre hosting Buddhist ceremonies once again.

It is a classic among tourists to come see the sunrise from the temple, but you’ll need to book a tour or get private transport. We decide to skip the sunrise and to take a bus at the Jombur station. It is Sunday and the place is crowded with people. And schools.

Near the temple there is a hill that offers a beautiful view of the complex from a vantage point. Lined with Borobudur, 1,5km and 3km away, we find two small temples, candis in Indonesian, Pawon and Mendut. The second one stands in the middle of a field next to a spectacular banyan tree which is a natural monument in itself. To get back to Yogya we just ask a local who tells us where to wait for the bus on the road – Indonesian are very helpful and friendly and they love to ask where you are from. The ride on the ramshackle bus is short, bumpy and a life experience.

Volcanoes of Java

We change the manmade temples in Central Java for some natural ones as we explore two of the great active volcanoes in East Java.

Gunnung Bromo and the Sea of Sand

With a height of 2329m, and named in honour of the Hindu god of creation, Brahma, gunung (Indonesian for Mount) Bromo is one of the five cones rising inside the ancient and massive Tengger caldera, over the so-called Sea of Sand. The others are the Kursi, the Watagani, the Widodaren and the Batok – the only one not active. They belong to the Tengger mountain range alongside other peaks and volcanoes, with the Semeru, the highest peak in Java (3676m) among them. The whole area, including 4 lakes and 50 rivers – many of them created over old lava tracks – is protected as the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park since 1982, with an area of more than 5000HA. It is home to protected species like the Java Leopard.

The entrance to the park is the village of Cemoro Lawang, at the rim of the colossal caldera. To get there from Yogyakarta first we take a train to Probolinggo, a 9 hours journey– with the air conditioning to the full. We wanted to take the night train but it was full, it needs to be booked in advance. There is also the bus option, but train is more comfortable – buy first class. Once in Probolinggo, right on the platform there is people offering transport to Cemoro. Some come to get the passengers who have paid the complete tour from Yogya even though the Bromo is perfectly doable on your own, really. With a diverse international group we get into a van to go up to Cemoro Lawang. We discover that the hotel we have booked, nice as it is, is very far down from the rim so it is going to take as an extra hour walking up the road. There are three population clusters at the slope of the Tengger, and it is better to book your lodging on the top. We can see that it is full of homestays, losmans and hotels so we might have find some room; some of our van companions have not booked anything. The lodgings in Cemoro are pretty basic but sleeping on the rim saves you an hour walk and an hour sleep because it is essential to get up early – and by early I mean before 3am – to see the sunrise from the hill closest to the caldera.

And not only because the sight of the three cones, Bromo, Semeru and Batok, towering at first light over the thick layer of clouds that covers the Sea of Sand, filling the monumental caldera, is magnificent. The main reason is that, as the day goes on, this layer of clouds expands and becomes a thin fog that tarnishes the view. Therefore if you want the photo and the show you need to get up early. Many people book the tour to go up in jeeps, which later descend to the Sea of Sand, from where you climb the stairs up to the rim of the boiling crater of the Bromo. However many people walk on their own, like us. It’s an easy walk and from Cemoro takes just an hour to one of the viewpoints in the hill. You will not be alone because it’s crowded but people scatter along – jeeps head to another point. By night it is pretty cold – it’s 2300m high, even if it is Indonesia. You must bring a head torch and a good jacket. It is worth the effort just to see the explosive triumvirate. The Semeru, in the background, salutes us puffing a column of smoke by surprise. Breathtaking.   

As for the second part of the visit, the Sea of Sand and the crater, we decide to take it in the afternoon to avoid the tour crowds, who leave between 7 and 9 in the morning – many people takes a complete tour of the Bromo and Ijen that limits the visit time. They get to Cemoro the previous night around 8pm and they leave shortly after sunrise. It economizes time if your trip is tight but it is exhausting and does not give people the chance to explore the area. Cemoro is surrounded by a lush green landscape with terraces cultivated with strawberries and onions. There is a trail that zigzags down into the caldera from behind the Camada Indah hotel, in Cemoro, and from there walking across the Sea of Sand to the temple and the stairs up the Bromo crater takes around 30 minutes. We step on volcanic ash and sand sprinkled with lava projectiles scattered around during the last eruption while we approach the smoking crater, alone in the breathtaking barren landscape. At the jeep parking you can rent a horse to get you to the bottom of the stairs– unfortunately we see some tourists taking the ride, a couple of them way too heavy for the poor beasts. Animal exploitation is still a blot on the record of many touristic areas on many countries.

Behind the temple, at the foot of the stairs, you can buy offerings to throw down the crater. Today it is just flowers but sometimes the ritual calls for a living goat. Luckily for us, not today. At this time in the afternoon the morning crowds are long gone and there is just a few people. Perfect, as the rim is really narrow. The inside of the crater is like a giant boiling pot, with a thundering sound like a waterfall that echoes inside the high walls. It is a mind-blowing sight. A statue of Ganesha presides the crater, sitting by the worn out stone railing, with offerings at its feet. At this point I truly resent not having brought something. I search my bag, I find some cookies. It will have to do.   

Ijen, blue fire and sulphur

Almost touching the sea by the east coast of Java, rising high above the Bali strait, the Ijen volcano complex includes several stratovolcanoes, located inside a massive 20km wide caldera. The most famous of them is Kawah Ijen (2799m), known for its blue fire, a phenomenon produced by the sulphuric acid emanating from the cracks at 600ºC. It is a phenomenon only visible in the dark, thus making night hikes a very popular experience during recent years. The bottom of the crater, 200m deep, is filled by a 1km wide acidotic turquoise lake. Sulphur is extracted on the shores in very precarious and extreme conditions. Actually more than one miner has studied English on the recent years to become a tourist guide now accompanying groups to the crater. Other carve little sulphur sculptures which they sell to tourists on the way to the rim.

Event tough it is probably easy to get there on your own – the road to Kawah Ijen is pretty good -, we were not sure and decided to join a tour. It picks us in Cemoro in the morning – the other passengers come from seeing the sunrise at Bromo. On our way from volcano to volcano we stop by the ocean to have lunch, our first taste of the Sea of Java – traditional fishing boats, crunchy squid (Cumi goreng tepung) and mangroves – before heading back up the mountain along a lush and spectacular forested road. Here at the fertile foot of the Ijen Arabica coffee is grown.

The Catimor hotel is pretty basic (we are in a “little village in the middle of the jungle” as the receptionist describes it), with rooms around a courtyard with a thermal swimming pool nobody is going to use – we got there late in the evening and we need to leave at 1am. We are a very large group, everybody comes here in search of the famous blue fire of Ijen.  Half asleep, and with our jackets on, we take the vans to the start of the trail. We climb up to the rim in about 1.30h. Some locals offer a “taxi” service which is basically a wheelbarrow pushed by three people up. Some tourists, healthy people with no dignity at all from my point of view, pay the elevated price to be taken up. The degree of embarrassment from the rest of people hiking up is high. Once at the rim we need to climb down to the bottom. It is dark but there is a line of people with head torches and gas masks. They are compulsory. The reason: the intermittent sulphurous emanations from the bottom of the crater. Really nasty.

We are not lucky today with the blue fire and, on top of it, it rains. We go back to the top after a couple of sulphur bursts leave us breathless. It’s still dark, we are wet and cold. Our group have scattered a while back along the climb down. We follow people up to the sunrise point, the highest point at the rim, for what it soon turns to be one of the pinnacles of the whole trip. The sun starts to rise and as light kicks in it suddenly paints an impressive landscape of peaks enveloped by clouds, changing colours in the sky, sulphur tainted massive walls and the turquoise lake far down at the bottom of the crater. We were just one foot away from the waters down there and we didn’t see them because of the sulphur fumes. It is truly a memorable sight, absolutely glorious. We don’t feel the cold anymore. We just gaze at the horizon, speechless, for a while. Our guide finds us and offers to take a picture of me. I will never be able to thank him enough.

On our walk down, we enjoy the lush landscape, the peaks, the coffee plantations, the rice paddies and the forest. Maybe it would have been worth to stay in the area a couple of days. Finally, the day warms up and our clothes get dry before we get back to the van, that takes us down to Kepatang, on the coast, to take the ferry to Bali. The time has come to say goodbye to Java. But we won’t complain, it’s been a grand finale.

Next: Bali, the island of gods

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